Documentaries

A Ball O’ Confusion Is Comin' to Your TV: Ken Burns' PBS Series on Vietnam Gives Its Corporate Sponsors Little to Worry About

Don't expect an honest accounting of the atrocities commited by the U.S.

Breaking fake news! Bank of America is withdrawing its support for the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary series "The Vietnam War," which starts Sunday night, because the series turned out to be too antiwar.   

It’s just like what BofA did last June with the NYC Public Theater production of Julius Caesar, after right wingers alleged the production was anti-Trump.

Wrong.

To the contrary, Bank of America apparently thinks the series isn’t too antiwar at all. BofA is going all-in on the Burns/Novick series. Full-page newspaper ads, a dedicated website, a social media strategy. Here’s a sample tweet.

The Koch brothers are underwriters of the series, too.  

Is this reason enough to be suspicious of the overall message of the 18-hour Vietnam series and all of its collateral products? Absolutely. The corporatization of so-called public broadcasting is a fact of life, a prime example of how the machinery of manufacturing consent works ceaselessly to expand its influence.  

The U.S. wars on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos still have powerful ghosts that the powers that be want to bust. (It might be irrelevant, but the institutional memory of BofA undoubtedly includes in there somewhere that time when antiwar protesters burned down one of its branches in Isla Vista, California, back in 1970.)

Let’s look at what we know about the series and its collateral materials. As it happens, we know a lot.  

As the most heavily promoted show in PBS history, the trailer has been widely circulated. Many previews have been held featuring different segments of the entire series. Scholars and others have seen all 18 hours and written about it. So have individuals featured in the series and consultants who were part of the research and production process. Burns and Novick have given innumerable interviews, speeches and press conferences about  the project.  

In discussing the recent Kathryn Bigelow film, Detroit, I said, “Approach it as a case study of the intrinsic limits of the white gaze, combined with the manipulation of facts for political and Hollywood marketing purposes.”  

Darned if the 18-hour Burns/Novick opus doesn’t come across as a case study of the intrinsic limits of the white gaze, combined with the manipulation of facts for political and marketing purposes for PBS and the underwriters of the series.

Even if Bigelow gets the benefit of some doubt as “just a Hollywood filmmaker,” Ken Burns is different. He is widely considered by his funders and admirers as “America’s historian.” He is explicitly tasked with shaping public opinion. A recent New Yorker profile of him was headlined, “Mr. America.”

Which makes "The Vietnam War" all the more regrettable, especially at a time when clarity about U.S. military and foreign policy is more important than ever.  

As with Bigelow’s Detroit, the problem starts with the title. The Kathryn Bigelow movie might accurately have been called Brutal White Police, since it’s about white racist cops getting away with torturing and murdering three black teenagers. The Burns/Novick series could more correctly be titled, "After 10 Years of Work, We Find the Whole Thing Very Confusing and Couldn’t Actually Find a Narrative Thread at All, Except Maybe That the Country Still Doesn’t Agree Whether the War Was a Good Idea or Not."

Don’t take my word for that. Take theirs. “There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable,” the duo said in a New York Times op-ed. "There is no single truth in war,” is the PBS tagline for the series.  

I am always intrigued when I read or hear some version of, “In Vietnam, they call it the American war.” On the surface, it looks like an even-handed, two-sides-to-the-story viewpoint. The Vietnamese have their point of view, and I acknowledge that.  

"The Vietnam War" carries that to new lengths. They get to 18 hours by making the series as complicated as they possibly can, including more than 80 interviews. Many Vietnamese express diverse perspectives. U.S. presidents and generals are portrayed as duplicitous, incompetent and misguided. Soldiers and officers from both sides are heard from. It all works to support their circular, many-truths argument.  

Except. There is a central myth that the series apparently perpetuates. Here’s how a favorable review in a right-wing publication put it: “The entire series…offers a fairly balanced but often gruesome and graphic recounting of many long years of involvement in the Southeast Asian conflict.”  

In other words, the U.S. wasn’t creating trouble, but rather trying, out of the goodness of our hearts, to be helpful in a “Southeast Asian conflict.” A specific variation on this theme is that the U.S. was helping the underdog in a “civil war” thousands of miles away. Never mind that the U.S. essentially created the alleged civil conflict in the first place.  

Impressionable Peasants

This storyline reproduces a theme of U.S. history that goes back to beginning of settler colonialism and the investment in chattel slavery. At the core of the white way of seeing the world is that white people are the victims of barbarian savages who resent our “freedom” and our “civilization.” More recently, the “inferior savages” are communists, although the white communists are perceived and treated differently than those of color.  

At an early preview screening I attended in Ann Arbor last April, Burns disturbingly went so far as to say that the Vietnamese who fought to repel the U.S. invasion were “impressionable peasants.” He also said the series will reveal that North Vietnam committed far more extensive and brutal massacres than did the U.S. troops at My Lai.  

Further insight into the white gaze perspective Burns deliberately seeks to portray comes from this excerpt from the profile in the New Yorker:  

“McPeak [General Merrill McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force who flew 169 combat missions in Vietnam and was a key advisor on the film] also recalled an objection that he’d made to a script change. In a section about the massacre of South Vietnamese civilians, in My Lai, in 1968, 'murder' became 'killing.' [The final script: 'The killing of civilians has happened in every war.'] McPeak pressed for 'murder.' His argument, he said, was, 'Let’s open the kimono—let’s tell it all, see it the way it is.'"

At lunch, Burns defended his change, on the ground that My Lai continues to have “a toxic, radioactive effect” on opinion. “Killing” was the better word, he said, “even though My Lai is murder.”

The net effect of the Burns/Novick point of view? A very simple truth is buried in millions of dollars of filmmaking rubble.  

Did Vietnamese troops invade the United States? Did the Vietnamese air force spend years spraying millions of tons of Agent Orange onto forests and crops in California and Ohio? Are there pictures of naked girls fried with napalm in Alabama that we haven’t seen? Were hundreds of thousands of civilians in Canada and Mexico killed to pursue Vietnamese military objectives in the U.S? Did Vietnamese troops massacre women, old people and babies and dump their bodies into mass graves in Missouri, Montana and Michigan?

Truth: The United States government invaded Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; not the other way around. Before that, the U.S. provided financial and military support to the French war to keep Vietnam a colony. Any suggestion that the U.S. was somehow the victim of the war is not just wrong, it is yet another example of the moral confusion for which our nation pays a far greater price than we are willing to admit.  

It is also likely to be popular. Consider this from an editorial in the predictably conservative newspaper that covers the overwhelmingly white and affluent Grosse Pointe suburbs outside of Detroit: 

“The upcoming 10-part documentary titled ‘The Vietnam War’ was previewed Aug 23, at the War Memorial before more than 200 veterans, their families and guests. If the preview’s enthusiastic acceptance here is any indication of the film’s audience appeal, it should be a series well worth watching.”

What About the Antiwar Movement?

Many antiwar activists are deeply concerned about the Burns/Novick series. It’s not that the movement will be ignored. That would be incompatible with the trope of “many truths.” But what we have seen in previews, learned from those interviewed (and those ignored) and heard from Burns and Novick themselves in countless profiles and interviews indicates a lopsided and distorted portrayal.  

In Ann Arbor and at similar events elsewhere, Burns asked military veterans to stand and be recognized, without asking peace movement veterans to be similarly acknowledged. Later on, at some events—though not all—Burns would also ask veterans of the antiwar movement to stand and be recognized. Reportedly, the only overt apology to anyone in the whole series comes in the last episode when an antiwar woman named Nancy Biderman makes a tearful apology for having been disrespectful to returning Vietnam soldiers.

The U.S. is a warrior nation and has been since even before 1776. Making war is what we are openly doing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Many other combat operations are invisible and unknown to the general public. Back in the day, a minority of antiwar movement participants, including myself, always sought to put the American war on Indochina in the context of the U.S. history of wars against people of color. The more “mainstream” majority insisted it be treated as a discrete mistake, a deviation from “good wars” such as WWII.  

It’s a longer discussion for another day, but this anti-imperialist versus antiwar division remains still. Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Syria and other U.S. invasions notwithstanding, apparently “some say this, some say that, only time will tell,” hasn’t had enough time. Not yet anyway.  

Which makes all of the Burns/Novick expressed wishes for “healing” and “reconciliation” just plain strange. How can they miss the fact that the post-Vietnam War fear of a national reluctance to kill people in other lands didn’t last long at all? Today we face widespread apathy and hopelessness about stopping U.S. military aggressions. Keeping it that way is one of the Pentagon’s post-Vietnam skills. Generals occupy more of the powerful positions in the supposedly civilian government than ever before. The great victory in Grenada aside, colossal military failures from Vietnam to Afghanistan predominate.  

Never mind that. The military budget is going way up. U.S. troops and military contractors are active all over the place. As Tom Engelhardt has pointed out, the Pentagon has clearly been decisive in the war that matters most; it has conquered Washington.  

Here’s the thing though. Boiled down to its essence, what made the U.S. war on Indochina magnificently and beautifully different from all those that preceded and followed it, is that it generated a powerful antiwar movement. People were anything but hopeless or helpless. The massive antiwar movement was citizen engagement at its best. Like those who were dismantling Jim Crow segregation at roughly the same time, antiwar activists were committed, creative and courageous. Indeed, many fought fiercely for both noble causes.  

It’s fair to ask why Burns and Novick don’t emphasize this point far more. Is it because they choose to be part of the constant campaign to worship violence and the military? After the 18 hours, the community outreach, the videotape sales, the book, the school materials and all the rest, will "The Vietnam War" help arouse the nation to stop the runaway permanent war train? In the spirit of the antiwar movement, let’s not leave that to chance. Let’s treat the series as an opportunity to reteach and relearn the truth—that the people can make the peace. 

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based writer and activist.  He is co-editor with Karin Aguilar-San Juan of The People Make The Peace: Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement

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